Zdra-vstvuy-te, Let’s Talk Russian on Russian language Day

By: Jack Xu

By Victoria Radvan, Training Content Developer

If you have been following our blog for some time now, you likely already know that to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity as well as an equal use of their six official languages, the United Nations established UN Language Days. On June 6th, the world celebrates UN Russian Language Day.

Currently, there are about 155 million native Russian speakers in the world. Russian is an official language in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan and also a second language spoken in former Soviet Union countries. Moreover, there are lots of Russian speakers living in Germany, Israel, the United States, and Canada.  Russian belongs to the Slavic group of the Indo-European language family together with Ukrainian, Belorussian to the east; Polish, Czech, and Slovak to the west; and Slovenian, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian to the south.

June 6 was not chosen randomly for the Russian Language Day celebration. The date coincides with the birthday of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), a celebrated Russian poet, playwright, and novelist. He is thought to be the founding father of modern Russian language and literature. Indeed, he was a versatile writer; Pushkin wrote classical odes, romantic poems, love and political verse to novels in verse, historical drama, realist prose, short stories, fairy tales, and much more. Many of his works became foundational texts in their genres. One of his well known works in the West is Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, which has been translated over 10 times into English alone. And yet none of the translators managed to capture the lyrical beauty found in the original. The translation of this literary work has been the subject of many discussions and arguments among translation theorists.

It is true for any language – no matter how skilled a translator is, it is impossible to transfer all the beauty of the original. The following Miguel de Cervantes’ quote always comes to mind when I think about this: “Translating from one language to another, … , is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.”

The only solution for being able to fully enjoy and experience that beauty of the original is to read the book in the language of the original. Hmm, a difficult task, you might think. Undoubtedly! But it is a good incentive to learn a new language.  Take Russian, for example. It is not surprising that there are many people all over the world who learn Russian just to read Russian literature. Have you heard of Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Nabokov? I bet you have. These are all Russian authors!

Certainly, it is easier said than done to learn a language.  Every language is difficult in its own way, and for some language speakers, certain languages may be easier to master than others. As for Russian, it is no different in having difficulties. I would be lying if I said Russian were easy, and that is coming from a native speaker.

Let us look to some difficulties that usually turn people away from attempting to learn Russian:

  1. Russian is written in Cyrillic rather than the Latin script like English, French, and Spanish. Some people feel uncomfortable in having to learn a different set of characters and letters. Is it that difficult to learn Cyrillic? Not really. Cyrillic is pretty straightforward to learn, and what makes it even easier than say English, is that Russian letters have consistent pronunciation. You only need to memorize which letter correspond to which sound and you will be able to read what is written in a couple of hours!
  2. Another common challenge for Russian learners is the difficult pronunciation. It is not unusual for Russian to have up to four consonants together and create combination sounds as in the word “здравствуйте” [zdra-vstvuy-te] for hello. Sounds like a tongue twister, doesn’t it? For an English speaker, this combination might feel unnatural. However, I assure you, it is much less difficult than tones in Chinese, interdental sounds in English, or pharyngeal sounds in Arabic. Although, everything is relative…
  3. Another difficulty frequently mentioned is Russian grammar, with its high number of inflections (endings), and exceptions to their use. The Russian language conjugates verbs, adjectives, and nouns. It has six cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, and prepositional, most of which will be easy for those who have studied Latin, Greek or German. Not to get too grammatic, Russian conveys relationships between words by inflections rather than the use of syntax, which is what English speakers are familiar with. Thus, whether it is the wolf who chased the hare (as in the popular Russian cartoon) or the hare who chased the wolf is made clear by the endings of the Russian words for wolf and hare. This allows Russian to have a more open sentence structure, which is another reason why it can be difficult to translate Russian poetry into English, where in the latter, the sentence structure is relatively more fixed.

Enough of linguistic details. Let’s end with some fun facts.

  • Russian is considered an “International Language of Space”, so if you plan on becoming an astronaut, you should learn Russian. Nowadays, it’s a requirement for NASA applicants to know the Russian language.
  • There are three genders in Russian language: masculine, feminine and neuter. Coffee is male, tree is neuter, and spoon is feminine.
  • The Russian word for “bear” – “medved” literally means “honey eater”
  • Russian is considered to have the richest and most versatile obscene vocabulary, which poses lots of challenges for Russian translators and interpreters working into other languages
  • Russian names consist of a first name, a family name, and a patronymic name, which is the father’s name plus the ending -ovich for a son and -ovna for a daughter. So, if a father’s name is Alexander, his son’s patronymic name will be Alexandrovich and his daughter’s will be Alexandrovna.
  • In order to remember the Russian phrase “I love you” – «Я люблю Вас» [ya lyublu Vas], just think of the phrase “Yellow-blue bus” and say that.

So there you have it. Now even if you do not go on to learn Russian, at least you will know some great facts about the incredible language!